A fairer economy will ease the pain of the middle classes

Speaking at a fringe organised by think tank Bright Blue at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady will say: “We now have an economy that is enriching too few and failing too many. As those at the top grab an ever larger slice of the spoils of growth, the rest of the UK is falling further and further behind.

“And it’s not just those at the lower-end of the income scale who are having a tough time – middle class families are not immune either from the tightest squeeze on living standards in a century, falling real wages and rising levels of personal debt.

“They’ve watched their children come out of university with good degrees behind them – usually coupled with huge amounts of student debt – but unable to secure graduate level jobs, reduced to working as baristas when really they’d like to be training to be barristers.

“More graduates may now be in work but that’s because many are taking jobs well below their qualification level. Low-paid jobs are no longer just a stop gap between university and a career. Graduates now find themselves stuck in the ranks of the working poor, with few prospects, no job security and an uncertain future ahead.

“Trapped in low-paying, insecure jobs, often on zero-hours contracts, many of these youngsters have no option but to move back in with mum and dad, unable to afford increasingly expensive rental accommodation, let alone save enough for a deposit so they can one day buy their own home.

“Wealth isn’t trickling down to the middle classes – it’s trickling up to the super rich. Middle class children are facing downward mobility en masse and many will almost certainly end up worse off than their parents.

“And those people employed in jobs traditionally seen as middle class increasingly find themselves being treated in ways that used to be reserved for those in blue collar jobs.

“Everyone is now working harder but for less, casualisation and bogus self-employment are on the increase, and unpaid overtime has become a fact of life almost everywhere – all of which has led to a lack of autonomy at work and loss of social status for almost everyone.

“The no-frills airline pilot cadets on zero-hours contracts, the move away from permanent jobs to short-term contracts across television, theatre and the media, health professionals – our nurses, radiographers and midwives – facing further cuts in real pay as the government ignores the recommendations of their independent pay review body. This is the reality for the UK’s squeezed middle.

“Gone are the days when most trade union members were men in blue collar jobs, now a large proportion of our six million members are professional and female.

“So when David Cameron promises to curb the power of unions and make it almost impossible for teachers, midwives or airline staff to ever go on strike, his actions threaten to alienate middle class voters just as much as those from working class neighbourhoods.

“Quite apart from the fact that unions in the UK already face amongst the toughest restrictions in any democracy, the Prime Minister risks facing a middle class revolt if he presses ahead with his threats to raise the strike ballot threshold bar so high that no politician could ever hope to achieve the same level of turnout, in any election.

“It doesn’t matter whether someone is a professional or a manual worker, they know that in these tough times of squeezed incomes, growing job insecurity and the huge divide between the rich and the rest, trade unions are the last line of defence.

“Instead of undermining the UK’s employment rights – that incidentally already rank as some of the weakest in the developed world – we should be cracking down on zero-hours contracts, bogus self-employment and agency work abuses.

“Now is the time to ditch the failings of winner takes all capitalism. Only then will we be able to rebuild our middle classes and deliver opportunity for all.”

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